Fountain & Tallman Soda Works
● By Wendy Sipple
Photo by Dante Fontana.
Local historian Marilyn Ferguson loves nothing more than talking with people about the history of Placerville. The same holds true for the dedicated and knowledgeable group of volunteers who donate their time at the Fountain & Tallman Museum.
Many of these members of the El Dorado County Historical Society have lived here all of their lives and some came from pioneer families who settled here during the Gold Rush. Therefore, they hold a body of invaluable information to share with the public at the “Little Museum” at 524 Main Street.
Until recently, the El Dorado County Historical Society, which owns and operates the museum, was unable to keep the building open more than eight to twelve hours a week. Responding to common comments from people who had been by the museum many times but always found it closed, the Society decided to make some changes. To assist them in providing the public with greater opportunities to view the museum, they enlisted Ferguson to help.
Joyce Thompson, longtime volunteer and chairperson for the Fountain & Tallman Museum says, “As our focus at the museum is Placerville during the beginning mining operations and businesses on Main Street in the early 1900s, Marilyn is a perfect source of information for visitors seeking accurate details about the period. Her passion for local history, plus the numerous years of research she has done are definite assets for the Society and the public.”
Naturally, keeping the museum opens means keeping the old building in tact. “It’s a miracle this building is still standing, that it has survived all these years and never been remodeled,” says Ferguson. “It represents a unique example of Gold Rush era construction and it illustrates Placerville’s transformation from a mining camp to a city.”
In 1852, local businessmen John Fountain and Benjamin Tallman built the stone and mortar building to house their duly-named soda works company. Because no bona fide means of refrigeration existed in those days, the partners built the walls over two feet thick to insolate the blocks of ice hauled down from the mountains. Using spring water piped in from the hillside behind the building, they produced cold, sparkling water for the local community.
The virtually fireproof building, the oldest in Placerville, survived the devastating conflagrations of 1856. But, the following year the soda works shut down due to financial difficulties. Later, it served as an ice cream manufactory, an ice house and subsequently accommodated several other businesses.
In 1981, Placerville native Faye Cannon donated the building to the El Dorado County Historical Society. Although El Dorado County constructed a larger museum in 1970, the Society wanted to utilize the Fountain & Tallman building as a small museum downtown so that visitors and tourists could acquaint themselves with Placerville’s past.
As owner of the old edifice, the Society bears the responsibility of maintenance and repairs. Unlike more modern structures, preservation and upkeep of the Fountain & Tallman Soda Works building often requires a special knowledge and expertise. By keeping the museum open more regularly, the Society hopes to generate enough money to sustain the building for future generations.